Newspapers from Yesteryear: Ink-spiration

Newspapers contain a wealth of forgotten material. Their inky print can be invaluable in sparking writing ideas, so if you’re in the planning stages of a short story, a novel, or even a film, consider consulting these resources.

Working in an archive, I’m surrounded by original bound copies dating from the 1700s onwards, and they really make you feel that you’ve been transported back in time. These papery gems allow researchers and writers a glimpse at life gone by and nowadays many are digitally available. Curious titles and reports abound, so try searching online for ideas and inspiration. Get an overview of action by following the trail of stories across daily or weekly papers. Just as today, however, they hold untruths (‘fake news’) and smokescreens, and information can be missing, so if searching for historical facts it’s important to cross-check with other documents.

I’m particularly fascinated by Georgian newspapers, when they contained attractive illustrated advertisements, although due to costs these were few in number. People and places fascinate me and these original sources really help to paint a picture and furnish characters. I’ve selected a few to whet your appetite:

From ‘The Nottingham & Newark
Mercury, 28th June 1834’

Fancy travelling on the wonderfully named ‘WATER WITCH’? Happy with a journey time from Nottingham to Scarborough of ‘15 HOURS’? In 1834 this must have been considered fast! We are informed that there was no need to change coaches, for passengers could now retain their seats for the whole pleasurable journey. One can only imagine the horror of being stuck in a small coach for a lengthy journey with an assortment of people, including screaming toddlers! Perhaps you’d prefer to travel on the luggage basket outside, clinging to the baggage. Worthy of a medal, surely!

From a historical perspective, if writing about the 1830s or thereabouts, adverts like this are perfect sources to consult. We gain a brief but interesting overview, and are given starting locations, times, routes, and names of proprietors. From thereon, our imaginations can take us wherever we want!

What a great name ‘Sir Wm. Charles Farrell Skeffington, Bart. [Baronet]’ is! Definitely a name to slip into a book! And how sad that the unnamed wife of ‘Mr. John Cummins’ never lived to see her many children grow.


From the ‘Nottingham Gazette, and Political,
Literary, Agricultural & Commercial Register
for the Midland Counties, 3rd February 1815’

There are of course, as I said, questionable elements in old newspapers. Who would actually believe the late Mrs. Johnson of Bedminster lived to the ripe old age of 114 or that Mr. William Parker of Whitfield died aged 103? Before the official registration of births, deaths and marriages (1837) people would often have only a vague idea of when they were born, which might be an interesting feature if creating a character from this era. To us they provide a hint of comedy and conjecture.

From ‘Nottingham Review and General Advertiser
for the Midland Counties, 11th May 1827’

A wonderful description and Dick Whittington-style image make this advert almost pantomime-like. It would be possible to create and furnish a character such as Robert Dodd and write him into an evolving scene. The almost Dickensian feel adds another layer when creating characters.

Why was Robert fleeing? Where did he go? Was he found? Could these ideas be transposed into the present day? We will probably never know. However, reading further information about Nottingham at this time and tracing ‘Messrs. Sparrow & Son’ would likely help paint an accurate setting of a workplace. For greater accuracy, it’s often a good idea to read newspapers that were published close to where your story or script takes place.

Further research can be undertaken to enrich information found in newspapers, whether that be census returns, local directories, or maps. I find it great fun and totally absorbing! Dive in and you too may find some inspiration for your next book or film!

Abigail Cobley

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